Freedom High Schools student in a thermal weave white shirt with a flannel shirt tied at his waist, works at a table with plants on it near a building window in the sunshine

Although he has loved the outdoors since he was small, it was in middle school when Tyler Kirkland's interests became a passion for environmental conservation. Now a senior in Freedom High School's Center for Environmental and Natural Sciences (CENS) program, Kirkland is honing in on a life goal as he begins conducting research on plants and soil through a microgrant he received from Conservation Nation's Next Generation Conservationist program (NxtGen). The program is open to 9-12 grade students who are passionate about wildlife, the environment, and community leadership. Applicants complete a proposal and participate in an interview. Kirkland was awarded $500 to solve a conservation challenge within his community.

"In a biology class I'm taking, we did a project looking for places on campus that would be good for a native plant garden," said Kirkland, of how the idea got started. "In October, Dr. ([Jessica] Doiron shared some information with CENS students about the Next Generation Conservationist program. I am interested to see if the native plants will reduce the number of contaminants in runoff that affects our local pond."

For the grant project, Kirkland will spend the next few months creating a native plant garden on Freedom's campus to find out if the plants effectively help remove contaminants from the soil. Although it will be a little while before he plants, Kirkland has been participating in monthly meetings with the NxtGen Conservationist Program team to monitor his progress and has identified a list of native plants and a location on campus. He will soon begin taking soil samples to study pH, levels of nitrogen and phosphorus, and describe the composition of the soil. His list of native starter plants includes Virginia Bluebell, Blue False Indigo, Coral Honeysuckle, American Wisteria, Cinnamon ferns, and Ostrich ferns. Kirkland envisions the project as an ongoing one, a gateway for future students and future projects.

Kirkland said that the encouragement he received while attending Rippon Middle School, as well as membership in the school's garden club, gave him a chance to be part of a committed group and helped him experience the impact of work that could offer lasting, positive change. This has stayed with him.

"With time and effort from the garden club, we turned these two gardens into beautiful outdoor places. This allowed other classes to take their education outside during the warmer seasons. Remembering that always makes me feel like I helped make a change that benefitted everyone," he said. "With the higher levels of education, in conjunction with many opportunities through my high school's CENS program, my passion for the environment has been realized. I have confirmed a life goal, sprouted from these experiences, to have a career in conservation."

Kirkland's story was featured in a spotlight on Conservation Nation's website.

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